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The Best of the Benefit Cookbooks Contain Some Great Regional Dishes

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A surprising number of good cookbooks are nonprofit affairs, put together by benefit committees and often privately printed. It gave me the inspiration to give a supper Junior League-style for 10.

Traveling around the country, I keep my eye out for the pick of the crop, particularly for regional collections, which represent local traditions in a way that larger, more ambitious publications cannot.

The good ones are very good indeed, with time-honored dishes and lively background notes to put them in context. Less careful compilations of whatever recipes happen to be at hand are often betrayed by the liberal use of cans and additives. Recipe ingredients tend to be out of order and bear no relation to the region they are supposed to represent.

This menu draws on three of my favorite benefit cookbooks, veterans of several print runs and long exposure to critical cooks. All are currently in print.

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A Lavish Production

“San Francisco a la Carte” (Doubleday: $19.95) is a relatively lavish hardcover production that won a Tastemaker Award. Assembled by the local Junior League, the 500 recipes cover a generous range, with typical Californian salads and sourdough breads spiced with ethnic Chinese, Greek, Mexican and Italian contributions. This Layered Vegetable Salad is typical of the book’s practical approach.

I was first introduced to “River Road Recipes” 20 years ago by a colleague at Gourmet magazine. Compiled by the Junior League of Baton Rouge, La., “River Road Recipes” fully deserves its success. These classic recipes for dishes like crawfish etoufee and the Seafood Gumbo I’ve picked as main course will long outlast the current fad for Cajun cuisine.

Looking at the recipe, I was surprised by the long cooking time for the shrimp and crab, but when I tried it, it came out just right, with the okra half-dissolved to form the characteristic slightly gluey thickening of genuine gumbo.

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“River Road Recipes I and II” are $11.50 each and available from: The Junior League of Baton Rouge Inc., 4950-E Government St., Baton Rouge, La. 70806.

Odd Man Out

The recipe for cornbread is an odd man out, but I could not neglect this treasure. “Printer’s Pie,” hand set on private presses and assembled by Mark Carroll in Bethesda, Md., consists of a couple of dozen recipes. The charm lies in lovingly chosen paper, esoteric typefaces and colored inks that change from page to page. The book costs $10 and is available from: Mark Carroll, 6302 Friendship Court, Bethesda, Md. 20817.

Dessert comes from Minnesota, with its German and Scandinavian traditions. Rhubarb Bundt Cake is a combination of two recipes from the “Minnesota Heritage Cookbook,” edited by Sue Zelickson for the American Cancer Society. The book costs $9 and is available from American Cancer Society, 3316 West 66th St., Minnesota, Minn. 55435.

SUPPER JUNIOR LEAGUE STYLE FOR 10

Layered Vegetable Salad

Seafood Gumbo

Uncle Jake’s Cornbread

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Rhubarb Bundt Cake

Suggested Drink: Domestic beer or iced tea

Up to one week ahead, bake the cake, then store in airtight container.

Up to three days ahead, make the base for the gumbo, then refrigerate.

Up to one day ahead, make the salad, then refrigerate. Boil the rice, spread in buttered dish and top with buttered foil for reheating. Brew iced tea, then chill. Chill beer.

Thirty-five minutes before serving, heat the oven to 400 degrees. Set the table.

Twenty minutes before serving, reheat the gumbo. Add shrimp. Make and bake cornbread.

Just before serving, add crab meat to the gumbo and keep warm. Remove cornbread. Reduce oven heat to 350 degrees and reheat rice.

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After serving salad, add oysters to the gumbo. Simmer five minutes, then serve with cornbread. LAYERED VEGETABLE SALAD

1 head Boston lettuce

Cottage Cheese Topping

1 (1-pound) can sliced beets, drained

1 cucumber, thinly sliced

1 medium sweet white onion, thinly sliced and crisped in cold water

2 large tomatoes, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons chopped chives

Chop lettuce and line glass salad bowl. Coat with 3 tablespoons Cottage Cheese Topping. Add layer of beets, then cucumber slices and drained onion rings. Top with tomatoes and cover with remaining topping. Sprinkle with chives.

Cover salad tightly and chill at least 4 and up to 24 hours. Makes 10 servings.

Note: This salad is a good picnic salad as it keeps well. Cottage Cheese Topping

2 cups cottage cheese

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper

1 tablespoon grated onion

Mix cottage cheese with mayonnaise, salt, pepper and onion in mixing bowl. Taste for seasoning. SEAFOOD GUMBO

2/3 cup oil

1/2 cup flour

1 large onion, peeled and chopped

2 to 3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

1 (1-pound) can tomatoes

1 1/2 pounds okra

2 quarts hot water

2 tablespoons salt

3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 large bay leaf

Dash dried thyme

1 teaspoon allspice berries

Few grains dried chili pepper

2 pounds raw shrimp, peeled

1 pound claw crab meat, picked over to remove cartilage

1 pint oysters

1/2 cup chopped green onions

1/2 cup chopped parsley

5 cups cooked rice

Heat 1/2 cup oil in heavy pan. Stir in flour and cook, stirring, over medium heat until flour browns thoroughly, 3 to 5 minutes. Do not allow flour to burn or it will taste bitter.

Add onion and garlic. Cook slowly until onion is tender, but not brown. Add tomatoes with juice. Cook over low heat until oil begins to separate, stirring often, about 30 minutes.

In separate skillet, fry okra in remaining oil over medium heat, stirring constantly until okra is no longer stringy. Add okra to tomato mixture and simmer 10 minutes. Add hot water, salt and cayenne. Simmer, partly covered, 45 minutes. Add bay leaf, thyme, allspice and chili pepper and simmer 20 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Gumbo can be prepared to this point up to 3 days ahead and refrigerated.

To complete, bring gumbo to boil. Add shrimp and simmer 15 minutes. Add crab meat and simmer 15 minutes longer. Add oysters and simmer 5 minutes. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt, cayenne or spice as needed.

Remove from heat. Stir in green onions and parsley. Serve in flat soup bowls, spooned over cooked rice. Makes 10 servings.

Note: “Variations may be made by adding different seafood, sausages or poultry,” says the original recipe. The seafood might be crayfish, added with the shrimp; the sausages would be spicy pork sausages, to be fried with the onions and garlic, and the poultry should be cooked chicken, chopped and added with the oysters. UNCLE JAKE’S CORNBREAD

2 cups stone-ground cornmeal

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 eggs

2 cups milk

1/4 cup oil

Grease 2 (10-inch) skillets. Place in 400-degree oven to heat.

Mix cornmeal, baking powder and salt in bowl. Make well in center. Add eggs, milk and oil. Stir, gradually drawing in cornmeal to make smooth batter.

Remove hot skillets from oven. Grease lightly again. Pour cornmeal into skillets and bake at 400 degrees until center is firm, 10 to 15 minutes. Brown breads under broiler. Serve warm. Makes 10 servings.

Note: “For unknown reasons,” remarks printer Jake Warner, “this simple recipe produces an endless variety of tastes and textures of cornbread, all good.” A cook would add that cornbread varies enormously with the type and grind of meal. These two cakes are unusually thin and crisp. RHUBARB BUNDT CAKE

3 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1/4 cup orange juice

1 cup oil

2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

4 eggs

1 cup chopped almonds or walnuts

10 ounces rhubarb, trimmed

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Powdered sugar

Grease 12-cup bundt pan and set aside. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt and set aside.

Beat 2 cups granulated sugar with orange juice, oil, vanilla and eggs until thickened and light, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in reserved flour mixture in 3 batches, adding nuts with last batch.

To make filling, cut rhubarb in pieces, then chop in food processor or finely chop by hand. Mix rhubarb with cinnamon and remaining 1 tablespoon granulated sugar.

Spoon 1/3 of batter into pan. Sprinkle with half of filling. Add half of remaining batter. Sprinkle with remaining filling, then cover with remaining batter. Bake at 350 degrees until skewer inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 60 to 65 minutes. Transfer cake to rack to cool.

Cake can be stored in airtight container up to 1 week, or it can be frozen. Warm in 300-degree oven. Sprinkle with powdered sugar just before serving. Makes 10 servings.

Note: If desired, this cake can be served with vanilla ice cream or sour cream.


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